It’s evident; there’s a feeling that we’re on the verge of an enormous change in our ability to treat cancer in our region. As we consider the limitations of the current Cancer Center and imagine, while staring at the beautiful rendering of the coming TLC2 Cancer Center, it’s important we think about how the coming change will affect our community at large. Surveys determine that better patient outcomes are directly linked to a patient’s comfort and nearness to home. While Texas has long housed some of the greatest cancer treatment facilities in the country, UMC’s perseverance, through Foundation, philanthropy, and other sources manifests in real life-changing treatments. I sat down and spoke with Jessica Wolff, Director of Operations for the Cancer Center, to better understand the implications of the new TLC2 Cancer Center and to further understand the unique challenges of treating cancer.
“I’m sort of an air traffic controller,” Jessica said with a smile. She outlined the somewhat dizzying process with precision. A patient is seen in the clinical setting, who is then connected to phlebotomy, then to our patient authorization service, our referral department, a navigation team, infusion, symptom management, with circumstances changing depending on the nature of their care pathway. It became immediately apparent that the nature of cancer means that treating it is an all-hands-on-deck situation, with several interdisciplinary connections focused on healing the most complex cancer cases. The interdisciplinary nature of cancer treatment highlights the unique qualities required of our staff members who work so diligently to aid our patients’ long-term healing. And that’s one thing unique to cancer treatment: it takes time, resulting in a different kind of connection between healthcare providers and patients, a connection I noticed immediately while in the Cancer Center’s waiting room. As I watched, nurses and technicians would step out, call for a patient, and immediately begin talking to them with all the knowledge and insight of a close friend. They’d ask about the most recent football game or ask a question about a family member or supporter not present. They’d smile and laugh and walk along into other areas of the Cancer Center to begin the evaluative work of determining whatever needed to be done next. The experience, between talking to Jessica and observing the staff, all culminated in a feeling of genuine care and investment in the cancer patients, which shows time and time again while visiting parts of UMC.
“Something unique about the employees here in the Cancer Center is that they know how to personally attribute an experience of their own—that of a family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a relative, or someone within the community—to that of a patient seeking treatment,” Jessica said. “This quality makes them our patients’ biggest ambassadors.” By funneling their care through empathetic experiences, the result is understanding. Remembering how dizzying the treatment process can be, having someone that understands makes all the difference. Jessica is among those who understand because her father was diagnosed with cancer only months after she was assigned to the position of Director of Operations. “It was an opportunity for me to vet the process—look at where we had opportunities for influence—and where our challenges and barriers lie.” What she saw made her proud: a team of energized caregivers focusing not just on the physical needs of the patients but also their psychosocial needs. The result was a model for holistic care meant to address body, mind, and spirit.
Now imagine overcoming the limits of this model given all the breadth and capability afforded by having a new state-of-the-art Cancer Center. The Cancer Center is coming amid major challenges to cancer treatment in the region. “Many of the resources for treating cancer that were available in smaller, rural communities are dwindling.” The result is more patients coming to UMC and a challenge to overcome barriers to accessibility popping up throughout the Health System. In developing and enacting a holistic model, the new TLC2 Cancer Center provides an environment designed from the ground up to foster holistic care beyond the capabilities available now. Newer treatments and a more streamlined process for inherently complicated care pathways mean a better overall patient experience and a happier staff. In asking about the other capabilities the new TLC2 Cancer Center might afford, Jessica admitted, “I’m personally excited about the dedicated space available to offering education about cancer prevention.”
Prevention is an immensely important topic when thinking about cancer. Many cancers are entirely treatable if caught early enough. However, communities haven’t always been educated about the warning signs of cancer or about behaviors that might increase the likelihood of cancer, meaning it’s less likely that cancer is detected when it’s most treatable. Jessica hopes that will change. She says, “HPV awareness, colonoscopy, genetic predispositions—we could offer testing to decrease the mortality rate and increase the likelihood of successful treatments.”
The future of cancer treatment in the region lies at the end of a group of culminating visions. Those affirming conversations in the waiting room, the walking with a patient arm in arm, the selfless contributions of those like Terry and Doug Chandler and so many other unnamed donors, the determination of administrators like Jessica Wolff, and a vibrant team of healthcare professionals all come together as a force to save lives and change futures for the better, often against incredible odds. Sitting back and looking at the momentum, it’s hard not to imagine a world in which cancer might be a thing of the past. For now, however, we’re working hard to make things better. We’re shining a light on cancer and making a promise that one day it will be overcome.